Growing up in a big family was intense, chaotic and character-forming. This is what it taught me
If you have siblings, the chances are that your relationship with them will be the longest you ever have with anyone. It’s a tie that precedes the one you have with you partner, and that can last long after your parents and friends have gone.
So why is so little attention paid to the brother and sister bond? The majority of sibling self-help books are aimed at parents who have young children locked in rivalry. Very little is written for adult siblings on how to maintain a healthy relationship. Michelle Qureshi, a London-based therapist, tells me she has seen a rise in the number of people seeking sibling counselling. “People no longer stay in the same area or live close to their extended families,” she says. “Busy schedules mean we don’t see each other as often as we used to. Sibling relationships can be intense and we set high expectations on them – so when they break, they can be difficult to resolve.”
I have some experience in this area. I’m the eldest of six, spanning a decade and then some. My siblings have added to the texture of my life, brought me joy and irritation, as well as the kind of worry that can only emerge from unconditional love. These are some of the things I’ve learned about the key stages of what I call sibship, after 40 years sharing my life with my brothers and sisters.
The early years: a bond forged through bad dressing-up costumes
My memories of early childhood are a blur of laughter, fights and chases around the house with my younger brother and sister, Zafar and Fozia. Now my own boys are the same: a whirlwind of energy, they wake each other at 6am, usually violently and noisily. The elder two are equal parts best friends and nemeses. The baby occasionally crawls into the ring to be met with an accidental flying foot and a cuddle.
Sibship at this age is a CBeebies version of Mission Impossible: the world is full of intrigue and excitement; this is the age of hatching plans and whispering secrets. Your relationships are linear. Your place within the hierarchy is clear, and decided by age, like it or not.
Dr Sheila Redfern, a consultant child and adolescent clinical psychologist at the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families in London, says these early relationships contribute hugely to our sense of self. “Children who are placed into foster homes together do better, even in difficult circumstances. You recover from trauma more easily if you have shared experiences. Even if they don’t get on, the effect is not any less positive.”
For me, my siblings were allies with whom I could take on the world (AKA our parents). I am still scarred by memories of my primary school’s annual May Day parade, when my mother, ignoring my protests, sent me to school as The Asian Girl. Things got worse when my brother, Zafar, started school, and joined me as The Asian Boy. There we were in our shalwar kameez, surrounded by superheroes, animals, and Roald Dahl characters. But then our younger sister, Fozia, came along, and things changed: she was stubborn, and this time Mum and Dad were outnumbered. Our demands were finally heard – we wanted actual costumes, not cultural garments. They worked feverishly through the night to provide us with outfits, which I now consider ingenious, but at the time left me mortified. I wore a vegetable sack with a sash of plastic veg and was “Miss Vegetable Of The Year”. My brother was “Sandwich Board Man”, and poor Fozia, the instigator of the revolution, was a “Modern Humpty Dumpty”, her costume a cardboard box. The bonds forged that day will last a lifetime.
The teenage years: constant babysitting, perpetual embarrassment
Before my 13th birthday, three more Mir babies had been born – to the surprise of my parents, who found themselves among that 1% of the population who get pregnant no matter what kind of contraception they use. As a result, my teenage years – a time when I wanted to hang out with cool older kids and do the things they did in American films – consisted, instead, of constant babysitting, snotty noses, sandwich-making and visits to A&E. My siblings were an embarrassment.
My sister Fozia is three years younger than me, and we wound each other up incessantly – me with my books and oversize glasses, she with her need to annoy me in every possible way. I pretty much hated her back then; I definitely did not understand her.
Recently, though, we were looking at a photograph of my sons. “Aww, look at him in the back with the death stare,” she said. “He wants to be just like his brother. I used to be like that. I wanted to be you. I’m sorry.”
I was taken aback. It’s taken us until middle age to find common ground. But then I realised it had been there all the time, on the evenings when my parents went out, and Dad would give us £20, saying it was for emergencies. We knew that was code for “pizza” and would bring all the duvets into the living room to watch The Goonies, Indiana Jones or Mr India. The warmth of those times is still with us all.
Young adulthood: from bad marriages to mutual cheerleading
There comes a point in your 20s when life is filled with the kind of busyness that takes you away from family. New relationships, careers, exciting friends, travel: it almost feels like a rejection of the people you grew up with – and perhaps that’s the way it’s meant to be.
When you’re no longer living under the same roof, it takes an effort to stay connected. Partners join the fold, and family dynamics inevitably change. If your siblings don’t get on with your partner, the distance widens.
Fozia’s ex-husband created a space between us. For the 10 years she was married, I rarely called her, and visited her twice. My own early 20s were spent trying to navigate a bad marriage. I withdrew, and drifted away from my brothers and sisters. But when that marriage ended and I returned home, the old alliances were still there; we didn’t need preamble and context. My siblings had grown up, too. Suddenly the age gap that had seemed so huge in childhood had narrowed, and I wanted to spend time with them.
Now that we are adults, we have become a sort of cheerleading squad for each other. For the younger ones, there is someone who has already navigated the world and can brief them on it. For the older ones, we realise it isn’t all on our shoulders any more.
Parenthood: the point at which loyalties subtly shift
“Don’t say that!” I’m videocalling my mum, and talking about my son’s handwriting. My brother Khizer sits on my mum’s sofa, defending my five‑year-old’s poor penmanship. My sister Khola joins him. I’m in trouble. I’ve forgotten that we are pack animals, and, while the pack looks after its own, the hierarchy shifts with the introduction of new blood. In the hierarchy of sibship, I have been downgraded: my siblings’ loyalties now lie with my children. And of course, I’m OK with this. My offspring are being watched over by the people I trust most in the world.
The exhausted haze of parenthood revealed more reasons to love my siblings. Their company is the one place I can lay down my hypervigilance. They have held their breath with me as my children started school, fell sick or expressed their fears; my siblings cheer on their successes. Half-term at my sister Javaria’s house means arriving to find a kitchen stocked with all my picky-eater child’s favourite foods.
My boys and I spent a summer in Yorkshire, flitting between my parents’ home and my siblings’ houses, and the strength of kinship was never more evident. My children ran amok, destroyed things, and then fell asleep in the glow of family, amid conversations that have been going on for decades. From the moment they were born, it is as if they sensed that my siblings were their staunchest allies.
Middle age: when parents get sick, and a new support system kicks in
“Well, Mum always said we’d be upset when she got cancer, and here we are,” I said. Everyone laughed – only siblings could. And when she lost her hair, thanks to chemo, my little brother, Khizer, and sister, Khola, photographed themselves in her wig and shared the images.
At no time is the sibling support system more essential than when a parent gets sick. My mum was in hospital with non-Hodgkin lymphoma. All six of us came together, descending from various parts of the country. “You know it is going to be OK when your big sister arrives,” my youngest sister, Khola, said as I stepped off the train at Leeds station.
I was only there for a couple of weeks. Khola did all the heavy lifting: taking mum to her appointments, looking after her and making her meals. But we all knew we had to pull together. Only we knew mum’s idiosyncrasies, her need for Egyptian cotton bedsheets, a clean house, and cappuccinos that she always pronounces “car-pacino”.
Mum has been cancer-free for almost seven years now, but in that moment the roles of parent and children were reversed – a reversal that gets more pronounced as we siblings progress to middle age. I remember my father running up and down the stairs of our family home when I was a child. Now, watching him take each step one at a time, I know how acutely he feels the loss of his youth. So do I.
Growing old: when siblings keep you young at heart
“He sends me WhatsApp messages telling me he loves me,” says my dad’s sister.
My aunt is visiting, and hasn’t seen my dad in a while, but it is as if their conversation was a recording on pause, and someone has just hit play. My father was a joker in his youth, and time has subdued him. But watching him with his sister is like watching time rewind: they are young again.
My mum and her siblings, scattered around the world, have a WhatsApp group where they share news of their children and grandchildren. Her phone regularly runs out of charge thanks to the continuous messaging. Thankfully, three of her sisters live close by. “Old age can be lonely,” my mum tells me, “and that’s when you realise how much you need each other. Emotional support, financial help – we offer it without being asked. I can call my sisters at any time and talk about anything. Whatever I tell them stays within the family.” Nothing, she says, compares to that feeling of being understood without explanation.
One day, I hope to be old myself. And at such a time I will have five houses to go where the meals will taste like my mother’s cooking, where the generosity of spirit is the same as my father’s, and where the stories told around the kitchen table will have at their heart the values I was raised with. It turns out that sibship is the best thing my parents did for me.
How to keep your sibling ties strong
Let go of the baggage Get to know your sibling as the adult they are, not the child they were. Be the first to let go of a grudge – your mental health will thank you.
Handle conflict kindly Language and tone matters. It’s easy to become disrespectful during an argument, or to want to blame; don’t be careless.
Celebrate each other’s success, but accept your own envy Sometimes you will feel jealous. Be nonjudgmental and supportive; whatever happens you’re on each other’s side.
Cultivate a friendship: spend quality time together away from family stress Take a class or walk together, away from children and spouses. This gives you something to talk about outside family politics.
Have trusted friends outside the family circle who understand your family This helps keep things in perspective and takes the pressure off sibling relationships.
Take responsibility There’s something about family that makes it harder to say sorry to a sibling than to anyone else. But it is important to apologise, as way of resolving the past and moving forward.
Communicate, in real life WhatsApp groups, texting and social media make it easy to feel connected without talking. But they’re flawed means of communication; it’s important to have proper conversations.
• Advice by Michelle Qureshi, a registered psychotherapist practising in London.
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